Naughty Nazis

05.30.15 10:45 AM ET

How Did Eva Braun’s Underwear End Up in an Ohio Thrift Store?

On the military memorabilia circuit, Eva Braun’s unmentionables have become legend—but did they really belong to Mrs. Hitler?

Prominently displayed in a long, narrow shop in Elmore, Ohio, is a glass case containing a pair of high-waisted, salmon-colored, lace-accented French silk panties. A raised monogram on the top spells “EB” and a price tag lists a “FIRM” $7,500.

These are not just any French silk panties. If the accompanying description is to be believed, they once belonged to Hitler’s longtime mistress (and, briefly, wife), the notorious Eva Braun.

So how did a pair of Mrs. Hitler’s underwear turn up in a 1,404-person town in northern Ohio?

The path that brought Braun’s alleged underthings to the display case is even stranger than one might imagine. The tale starts on Hitler’s mountaintop lair in the days after Nazi Germany crumbled to the Allies, and involves a mysterious American soldier, a controversial auctioneer, and a whiskey-distilling, panty-selling antique dealer in the tiny hamlet of Elmore. No one has yet made an offer on the underwear, and few seem to be buying the story behind it, either.

The store possessing such a bizarre piece of history is called Mantiques. It’s one of a series of masculine-themed collectible stores that have now spread so widely “you can take a road trip from New Hampshire to California” just visiting them, says Ernie Scarango, owner of the version in Elmore. But his shop sells a special something that he believes sets it apart from the others.

“Not everyone has Eva Braun’s underwear,” he says.

Ten years ago—after leaving his job as caretaker for the Archbishop of Detroit—Scarango got word about an auction of items “liberated” when Allied soldiers captured Berchtesgaden, a scenic region in the Bavarian Alps that housed the headquarters of the Nazi party, called the Eagle’s Nest, along with the Berghof, Hitler’s favorite residence.

The story Scarango was told involves a young lieutenant named D.C. Watts, who landed on the legendary mountaintop with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101 Airborne Division on May 6, 1945. It was not yet a week after Hitler was announced dead, and French and American troops had only just breached the fallen leader’s headquarters a few days before. Two days later, Allied forces announced victory in Europe.

Members of the 506th Regiment E Company would later be dubbed the Band of Brothers, and their bravery was widely memorialized. But in those early days, those soldiers and others celebrated by filling their pockets with anything that wasn’t nailed down in the Fũhrer’s abode. Including, perhaps, the unmentionables of Mrs. Hitler.

The auction that Scarango caught wind of included hundreds of pieces of silverware, watercolor paintings done by Hitler, and personal effects, including a singular pair of Nazi mistress underthings. This piqued Scarango’s interest and he sent an agent to claim the piece for a sum he won’t disclose.

“I planned on opening the store and I thought it’d be a good conversation piece to have Eva Braun’s underwear and make the store a destination of sorts,” Scarango says.

His plan worked. With a recently added exit ramp off the main turnpike, Elmore has become a stopping point on the route between Cleveland and Toledo. He says visitors sometimes make the turn off to the town just to get a look at the underwear. Scarango keeps busy by simultaneously operating a nearby whiskey distillery. “During nice weather I’m either making whiskey or selling Nazi panties,” he says, laughing.

circa 1940:  Eva Braun (1910 - 1945) mistress of Adolf Hitler and later his presumed wife.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Keystone/Getty I

Eva Braun (1910 - 1945) mistress of Adolf Hitler and later his presumed wife.

Sometimes curious customers ask to touch Braun’s undergarments, a practice Scarango doesn’t partake in because he fears his rough hands will damage the delicate fabric. When he bought them, Scarango remembers he could easily tell with his trained eye that these were the real deal. “They’re first rate: the fabric, embroidery and monogramming, the sewing of the button,” he says.

In accordance with auction practice, the underwear came with a letter of provenance, to authenticate that it’s genuine, and this one was written by the man selling it. (Scarango was unwilling to provide a copy of the letter.) It also included a book called Treasure Troves of the Third Reich, describing the history of the loot, that was written and signed by the seller.

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The proprietor-author in question is 84-year-old Charles Snyder, a retired Air Force major who did stints in Vietnam and Korea, and has left a trail on seemingly every military collector forum on the web over a career he says traces back to the ’60s.

When reached by phone at his Maryland home, Snyder refused to identify himself. “He’s in Afghanistan,” he said when asked if Snyder was home. After additional questions, he caved, explaining, “I get a lot of phone calls.”

Snyder runs Snyder’s Treasures, a fantastical compendium of military memorabilia, out of his home and sells his wares online and at a handful of military shows. His website, he claims, has 800,000 items for sale, many of them relics of the Third Reich.

Before age slowed him, Snyder used to host dozens of military collectors events across the country. It was at one of these, in Charlotte, North Carolina, around two decades ago, that he says he met First Lieutenant D.C. Watts.

Watts, he said, told him an irresistible story: He had traveled with the 506th Infantry from Africa to Europe. He got to Berchtesgaden in time for the liberation of the Nazi headquarters. Underneath Hitler’s home, he and a friend found a series of tunnels leading to a nearby hotel called Platterhof. There, they discovered boxes of Hitler and Braun’s belongings that had been stored for safekeeping. The pair loaded  seven steamer trunks with the treasures and shipped them back to America.

Snyder, accustomed to seeing one or two pieces at a time, was impressed. Over the next three years, he said, he paid $3 million in installments for the entire contents of these trunks, which had been held in “a warehouse-like place” outside Charlotte. Included in this trove were 100 pieces of Braun’s lingerie, including perhaps 20 to 30 pairs of underwear.

Snyder analyzed the pieces for himself, and never requested outside confirmation. “I’m an expert, I don’t need to,” he said. “I write up a certificate of authenticity which satisfies the buyer.”

Watts, he said, passed away 15 years ago, and despite their extensive business transactions, Snyder claimed to never have learned his full name. “I didn’t really ask him about that,” he said. “I was more interested in acquiring the collection.”

But the identity of First Lieutenant D.C. Watts is almost as mysterious as the undies that come with it. In National Archives records, there are a handful of candidates with the right last name and first name initial. The most plausible could be a man named Dennis Carlton Watts, who was born, and died, in North Carolina and was enlisted during the liberation. (Attempts to contact his son were unsuccessful.)

There is no complete database of members of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, according to the 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment Association. A representative of the board says there were at least 3,000 to 4,000 members during the Second World War, and its database—which is incomplete—does not include anyone with the last name of Watts. A record of all the 506th Regiment men who saw combat by June 1944 has no trace of a D.C. Watts.

When confronted with the scant evidence of Watts’s existence, Snyder was unfazed. “Well, he could have been a spy,” he said. “That may be the reason why he knew what he was looking at and selected and brought it back: because it was all great stuff. It wasn’t just junk things—that’s why I was so excited about it.”

So far, Snyder said he’s sold around 60 percent of what he purchased from Watts—including, most recently, a piece of Braun’s jewelry. Even if Watts wasn’t entirely truthful about his story or identity, Snyder is still confident in his treasure trove. “I was interested in his stuff, I wasn’t interested in him,” he said. “I knew what it was—I’ve been doing this a long time.”

But among the dealers and collectors who frequent the military memorabilia circuit, Braun’s underwear has become a laughing matter.

“The Eva Braun underwear story has been going around for years and it’s kind of a running joke,” says Bill Panagopulos, who runs Alexander Historical Auctions, a Maryland auction house that consistently deals in memorabilia from the Third Reich.

“When you talk about personality items—things belonging to Hitler and Eva or Goering—you have to be very careful. …What’s to stop anybody from getting a box of 1940 clothing and saying, ‘OK, we can tie this to this soldier who was actually there and say I got this from him.’?”

Third Reich antiques come with built-in controversy, but there’s a market teeming with product and bursting with demand. Panagopulos is well known in this high-stakes arena. Not long ago, he sold a sapphire-laden swastika ring made for Hitler. When a man came in with a swatch of Hitler’s sofa fabric with blood on it, Panagopulos did the research and concluded it was real. The market hasn’t seen much of Braun’s items, but Panagopulos did sell a dress he is confident belonged to her.

Braun certainly could have left her unmentionables in the Berchtesgaden home, where she often stayed. In a later-released secret 1943 report on Hitler’s psychological profile by an American intelligence agent, it was noted that “after one of her visits in Berchtesgaden, some of her underwear was found in Hitler’s bedroom.”

But without a leak-proof letter of provenance signed by the soldier who discovered it, Panagopulos wouldn’t touch the French silk undergarments. “No matter who would be offering them, whether it’s Charlie Snyder or Mother Teresa, there’s just no way unless you have some really solid proof,” he says.

On the topic of Snyder, the boisterous Panagopulos will allow little to go on the record, apart from this: “The best I can say is that I’ve not done any business with him, but from what I hear he has a rather controversial reputation.”

The Internet tells a somewhat more complicated story. Many commenters have weighed in on Snyder’s items, saying they can debunk claims he’s made and warning buyers to beware. “OH GOD, he’s at it again,” one wrote in response to a query about an item supposedly belonging to Hitler confidant Hermann Goering. “I mean, he’s been selling Eva Braun’s underwear for going on 20 years now,” another complained.

Snyder counters this criticism on his website’s homepage and in his email signature, writing: “Many long time dealers like myself have great items which bring resentment to the ‘newbie’ cry babies. So you will see their improper false comments on the 21st century ‘blogs’. I had been on Ebay with over 3500 daily auctions until a few years ago and have nearly 23,000 one time favorable positive comments and over one million others.”

Online, where Snyder does most of his selling now, he has dedicated a number of pages to Braun’s belongings. He is currently selling, among other items, strands of her hair, camisoles, handbags, and another pair of underwear—these in white with a $1,999.99 price tag.

Of course, taking home souvenirs from a defeated enemy is a tradition as old as the Battle of Troy. “Psychologically, it helps an individual go from a culture where it’s OK to kill someone and transition back to that being something we don’t do…taking of souvenirs helped compartmentalize that,” said Jeff Shrader, an appraiser for Antiques Roadshow, who spoke on the phone on his way to Tucson, Arizona, for an episode shoot. “It’s really part of our humanity to do this, but I don’t think any of that really applies to Eva’s underwear. That’s probably on another page of the psychology book.”

Much of the loot taken out of Hitler’s home has been making the rounds for decades. Shrader said he’s often come across fragments of flooring and tiles that came from Hitler’s residence.

A month after Hitler’s hideout was taken by Allied troops, a newspaper reporter marveled that the area had been so wiped clean that in a nearby hotel “there is scarcely a swastika left…except for the souvenirs collected by guests.” In two nearby castles, troops made a major discovery (PDF): stacks of art stolen from the National Library of Poland. These were carefully locked up. The tunnels under Berchtesgaden were later found to have been hiding three train-loads of priceless paintings by Dutch, Italian and French masters—and that some of these were plundered by French and possibly also American soldiers.

But Braun’s undergarments aren’t included in the circuit of relics that have surfaced so far. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty I’ve never seen anything like this on the legitimate market,” Shrader said.

Still, he conceded that “anything’s plausible,” when asked about the authenticity of Braun’s underwear. “One of things we learn is, ‘Never say always or never.’ But considering the amount of material that has come on the market, and given the circumstances around its sale, at this point quite honestly it’s become such a joke even if you had something that was real it wouldn’t matter because you couldn’t really sell it.”

If a piece like the lingerie showed up at one of the Antique Roadshow markets, Shrader said, he has a practiced, diplomatic response after 20 years in the business to signify his lack of interest. “I would try to as politely and gently as I can let them know that there is a fair bit of controversy within the trade about those items, that they are rather universally believed not to be legitimate.”

“And that’s not to say that we know everything—but I would caution them that any such thing would have to have iron-clad provenance in order to be taken seriously.”

Authenticity aside, at Mantiques in Elmore, Ohio, Scarango has no illusions that a customer is going to walk through his doors and shell out for the underwear tomorrow—or perhaps ever. “They’ll stick ’em in my casket when I die,” he says. “Are you kidding me? Who’s going to spend $7,500 for a pair of Nazi panties? If someone offered me the asking price of course I’d sell, and then I’d take them upstairs and make breakfast for them.”